Puerto Escondido: the locals’ beaches

Okay, more nifty stuff about PE:

  1. Swampy’s been there. That’s a long way to ride the rails, from the U.S. to the second-to-southernmost Mexican state. IMG_0244
  2. The local beaches are fascinating. My favorite two are Playa Angelito and Playa Principal.

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Angelito, guarded by an altar, is miniscule, claustrophobic and crowded. Fishing-boats come close, cutting off swimmers’ access to open sea. But that’s okay, because most people are waders, anyhow — adults packed into tight kiddie inner tubes, kids in water-wings, everyone squealing and clutching each other with each wave. A motor-boat pulls tykes around on, no joke, an inflatable hot dog. Gulls circle low to catch one-off’s from the fishing boats. Men on the shore hawk “seven beach boat tour” to tourists, except that there really don’t seem to be many tourists. The shallow expanse of sand is ringed by hut-style restaurants, and little boys stand on the wet rocks and fish using a line and a cardboard square, and grin and scramble when a fisherman whistles at them and tosses handfuls of guppies. The small fish flash silver on the rocks and the kids grab them in bare handfuls and shove them in a nylon backpack to use as bait.

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Playa Principal is the downtown beach, sunk just below the main drag. It’s wide, gritty and teaming, best at dusk, because that’s when the fishermen bring in their catch. There are naked tots and competing boom boxes, kids tossing balls and playing chicken. The street alongside the beach turns into a night bazaar, with people offering indigenous crafts alongside cheap trinkets. It all feels summery and festive, like a grand place to stroll bare-shouldered, enjoying soft air and eating ice cream.

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3. Pablo and I finally made it the tiny cove on Playa Carrizalillo. Maybe because the power was “harnessed” by rocks, the surf was completely wild. It churned up huge shells (I found one the size of a small plate) and knocked us off of a rock we were using as a lounger. I got a huge bump on the back of my head, and Pablo’s glasses were knocked off his face. He didn’t notice till we had hiked the hill back to the main beach. Then we went back to look for them, though he was sure they were at sea.

I nearly stepped on them. They were sitting on the beach, lenses up, neatly folded, like someone had placed them there intentionally.

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That’s it for PE. Next up, Oaxaca city!

Puerto Escondido, water for every whim

Puerto Escondido is fabulous, and I wish I had more time there.

My hostel, Casa Losodeli, was full of 20-something Europeans and Americans who had essentially moved in. It seems anyone willing to tend bar and set out cereal is welcome to a free private room. Some had been there for weeks. Some had been there for months.
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These lifers spent large swaths of the day at the hostel, occasionally leaving for an hour to run or wash clothes or surf. They played Davila 666 and Beach House (the San Fran bike messenger) and Vampire Weekend (the Austrian) over the common space speakers, and read or used wifi at the wooden tables on the thatched-roof patio They grocery-shopped and cooked in the hostel kitchen and shared with each other, or split giant pizzas. The Europeans speak four languages and bitched about how broke they are and how their parents ignore their requests for money.

There were also Mexican guests at Casa Losodeli. Confusingly, they lounged by the small, kidney-shaped pool, ignoring Puerto Escondido’s loveliest beach, a mere three block stroll.

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I befriended, Pablo, a 28-year-old insurance salesman from Mexico City, who had planned to travel with friends. They ditched at the last minute,  so my first full day and his last, we got up early and descended the hundred-plus stairs to Carrizalillo Beach, a half-moon of pleasant pounding, gradiated blues and tropical foliage. (It’s also great for surfing, if you’re not quite up for “the Mexican Pipeline” that is Zicatela.)

We swam out far, past the breaks and the surfers, and I spend a lot of time floating on my back, trying to tilt and crane enough to keep the mansions in view, scattered about the green bluffs. I also spent a lot of time marveling at the convex sky and thinking about how much I love the ocean, being simultaneously contained and infinite (a mantra, of sorts).

From the sea, we saw two things we hadn’t noticed from the beach — a tiny, secretive cove that we could maybe access if we climbed a small bit of bluff, and the remains of a house in the hills. We decided to try the ruins first.

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We’d eyeballed the distance using a large white house which, upon walking up a dirt road, we identified as the hotel with the best terrace restaurant for watching the sun set over the ocean (as we discovered that evening), called Villas Carrizalillo. There are briars and a bit of downed fence behind the villa and a small, overgrown path that leads to what seems to have once been a private residence.

Much of a narrow kitchen is intact, with some painted tile remaining. Street artists had been there before us and it looked as if someone had used part of the place for dumping, but the floor is made of large cool tiles, the view is amazing and it would be a perfect place to camp, unless you’re worried about snakes or scorpions slithering through the night. (I am maybe, a little.)

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There were also bats in a stone chimney, and when we spoke into the void, they emerged in a chaotic, thrilling mass.

We hiked back and ordered lunch from the family-run, open-air restaurant on the beach. Pablo asked for fish, but by this point, I’d eaten loads of fresh, spiny, flat-eyed fish. I wanted the chicken mole the cook was feeding her children.

Pablo negotiated this for me, and at first the woman was reluctant, since the mole isn’t on the menu. But ultimately I was presented with a plate of thick, rich chocolate sauce over boiled-to-disintegration (i.e. perfectly moist and tender) chicken and rice and a stack of handmade tortillas, which Pablo rolled and dipped in the mole and said that’s how Mexicans do it.

It was way better than his fish tacos, and it ended up costing much less — about $2 US.

Then we took a cab to Playa Zicatela, but it was too early for the surfers. Cautious people avoid the water at Zicatela. We plunged in, of course, and it immediately became apparent why this is considered one of the most dangerous beaches in the western hemisphere. There are killer (literally) rip tides. You can see them, like a giant zipper being dragged up and down, just under the water.

But if you avoid these zippers, the waves are great. Standing in thigh-high water, you can catch a swell and body-surf the hundred or so yards to shore. And when the waves are big enough to be terrifying (every fourth wave or so), simply dive under them, the deeper, the calmer. But I like to surface dive, to feel the bubbles skimming my body like fizz on a soft drink. I love how each beach has entirely different types of waves, which lend themselves to entirely different forms of play.

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When we’d had enough, we got massages on loungers ($8 US, from women walking up and down the beach seeking customers), and then watched the surfers (7-8am and 5-6pm, usually) weave through raging, 15-20 foot tubes.

Then we had mezcal-coffee shots at a bo-ho bar called Casa Babylon. It wasn’t open yet, but we convinced them to let us in.

They were playing some chill electronic lounge that sounded like early-90’s New York, and the ceiling and walls are a museum of wooden artifacts, including indigenous masks. There are couches and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and signs about yoga, and I know that if I lived in PE, I’d be a quick regular.

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But here’s the highlight of it all: that night, we went swimming on the moon.

Except the moon is called Manialtepec (meaning “place of the lizards”) and it only exists during the rainy season (May to November), and it’s currently only accessible via a stinky motorboat that’s likely not doing its amazing biosphere any favors.

Without signing any sort of releases and without life vests (oh so different from US tourism), we joined a guide and random others in this stinky motorboat and rode 20 minutes out into a pitch-black convergence of salt and fresh-water.

Then we were told, unceremoniously, to jump in.

Hope the “lizards” are iguanas and not crocodiles, I told Pablo. We jumped.

The water was soft and warm, like Mississippi summer nights. And as we moved around, we saw little flashes of white light, like Mississippi summer fireflies, except they started increasing in intensity and merging together creating little “trailers” to mark our movement.

We were told that motion disturbs the phytoplankton who sometimes live in the lagoon. Then they light up as a defense mechanism, and then you dance and spin and make water angels, trailing circles and sparkles.

If you push from your chest, a la basket-ball passing, you fling a ball of white energy, like a wizard, commanding a spell.

I could have stayed forever.

Apparently, no one else could. An hour later, only Pablo and I were still swimming.

It had been raining for awhile, and every drop coaxed a blink-and-you-miss spark from the dark water. The sky had fallen to earth and we were star-swimming.

It was sheer magic. Then it was sheer panic.

The lightning had been in the distance, but one slash was frighteningly close and instantly, I was grasping the (gulp, metal) ladder, hauling myself onto the boat.

We shivered through the ride back, the plankton drying on our skin as shimmering, chalky powder. I slept still wearing moon-dust — a perfect ending to a perfect day.